Twitter, the ‘Snoopers Charter’ and Online Privacy

By Paul Reilly

Has the Internet, and micro-blogging site Twitter in particular, killed privacy? Well, not quite.

In June 2011, Eric Schmidt used his keynote speech at the Google Big Tent UK to criticise those governments who pass ‘foolish’ laws designed to protect privacy in online spaces.1 The former Google CEO did not refer directly to the UK in his speech, but the implicit message to fellow keynote speaker Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, was clear: government measures to protect privacy are unlikely to succeed in the social media age.

So has the Internet, and micro-blogging site Twitter in particular, killed privacy? Well, not quite, though it clearly helps if you have lots of money and access to legal expertise. This may seem counter-intuitive given the spate of super-injunctions last year that ultimately failed to prevent revelations about the private lives of footballer Ryan Giggs and former RBS Chief Executive Fred Goodwin entering the public domain courtesy of Twitter and the use of parliamentary privilege by two MPs. However, there are two landmark legal cases that I think may prove significant as the UK parliament considers the balance between the right to privacy and freedom of expression on sites such as Twitter.

First, South Tyneside council used Californian law to force Twitter to hand over user details relating to a blogger (“Mr. Monkey”) who had used the site to post libellous remarks about several of its members.2 The council lodged a subpoena in San Mateo County requesting access to the name, address and registration information of “Mr. Monkey,” who was linked to five Twitter accounts used to defame several councillors. While the council has yet to take further legal action against the user alleged to be “Mr. Monkey,” the case suggests that those who use Twitter to break super-injunctions or for the defamation of individuals can no longer assume they are immune from prosecution for such transgressions.

 
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